In the first of our monthly posts from Learning and Teaching Forum committee members, Phil Lightfoot asks, ‘How do we build a York graduate?’
How do we build a York graduate? Do we always have a clear idea what kind of graduate our degree programmes will produce, and are we confident in the effectiveness of our programmes to deliver on these claims? Is it possible for our students to graduate from our undergraduate programmes unable to articulate the progress they have made to facilitate their transition into employment or future study?
One of the main reasons students choose to study at university is to enhance their career prospects. This becomes increasingly important in view of rising costs of education and levels of debt on graduation. Over the years, there have been many government-inspired initiatives and reports urging higher education in the UK to make a stronger connection with the needs of employers. These have had limited success, and the extent to which programme level learning outcomes address the progressive development of vital graduate skills is often ill-defined.
The York Pedagogy asks us to consider programme level learning outcomes; to consider how the modules we teach, the knowledge based skills, practical skills and transferable skills serve our programmes. As such the programme learning outcomes are specifications rather than consequences. Whilst it might be assumed that there already exists a reasonably clear, coherent development of subject content within programmes and across stages, to what extent is the progressive development of transferable skills comprehensively mapped?
Do the learning outcomes of our modules mainly relate to knowledge, comprehension and application? Do they therefore constrain lecture content, teaching style and assessment? Are module-level learning outcomes determined following an appraisal of the progressive development of subject complexity within a programme? Do they exist within a programme map which articulates stage specific development and progression?
How can we ensure that essential transferable skills and capabilities are also embedded within the design and delivery of our programmes? Development of employability skills is often regarded as being distinct from subject based content, and some programmes provide this material via bespoke activities detached from the academic programme. Key objective 2 of the University Strategy 2014-2020 (https://www.york.ac.uk/staff/teaching/procedure/strategy/) shares a vision in which “we will invite students to explore their subject as independent learners and as active researchers. We will encourage and develop creativity, advanced problem-solving skills and critical, independent thinking. Our students will be challenged to reach the highest level of attainment and they will acquire skills that enhance their employability and professional effectiveness”. Implementation however (descriptor 5) describes the enhancement of employability through engagement with activities to a greater or lesser degree distinct from the academic curriculum.
It is important to recognise that professional performance requires graduates to demonstrate wide ranging capabilities primarily to enable the effective application of theory to practice. Future success in the job market will rely precisely on the ability of our graduates to combine operational skills with transferable skills, and to be able to adapt these skills to different contexts.
In a global marketplace increasingly reliant on technological advancement we must endow students with the ability to learn from their experiences, to reflect, to think critically, to innovate and to make the most of opportunities. An unstable job market requires students to be adaptable, flexible and resilient to change, demonstrating strong business and commercial awareness. These qualities appear more difficult to embed within our curriculum and measure in our graduates than for example, communication, team work and problem solving skills.
An ambition to develop skills beyond specialist knowledge via their explicit embedding and integration within the programme, implies a willingness to re-examine the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. This carries with it no expectation of upheaval, the dilution of academic content, or the need to introduce widespread changes, for example flipped classrooms, problem based learning or revised assessment methods.
It only requires us to consider the ways in which our teaching might contribute towards the development of a York graduate. This could be through the introduction of active learning mechanisms, forum based learning, e-learning resources or interleaved practice. Module content could better provide students with the opportunity to develop metacognitive and critical thinking skills, inside and outside contact time.
There are many examples of good practice relating to the embedding of employability skills within the curriculum and some of these will be described and discussed at the annual Learning and Teaching Conference on 7th June 2016 in the Exhibition Centre (https://www.york.ac.uk/staff/teaching/community/events/annual-conference/2016/). I hope you will be able to attend and participate in the discussion.